It was still dark outside when the alarm rang at 6:00 AM on that nippy morning in December. A couple of minutes later, I got my wake-up call from the front desk as well, at the Hotel President in Jamnagar. I had arrived here last night via Rajkot, extending my trip by a day after a business trip to Morbi. The reason? It had been a call a few weeks ago from a family friend of my wife. My wife’s friend, Manisha is a school teacher and her husband, Mukesh a doctor in the army, and they had recently moved to Jamnagar based on the good doctor’s peace tenure and they had dangled the proverbial carrot in front of me, by insisting that I must visit, not only to meet them, but to come and witness the spectacular migratory birds that visited this town and its outskirts during winter. And when I found that work would take me to Morbi, I realized Jamnagar wasn’t far, so why not?
And so the trip was planned, I checked with a few of my friends on the possible locations and species to scout for. All of them though, had one common piece of advice, if you are visiting Jamnagar for bird-watching or wildlife photography, look no further than Hotel President, looked after by the affable Mustakbhai, a passionate birder himself. Its location in the heart of the city, makes visiting all birding hotspots convenient, especially the hotspot located within the city itself, Lakhota Lake, situated at walking distance from the hotel. But more on that later. I rang up Mustakbhai and told him of the plan; I would just be in the city for a day, leaving by the latest flight in Rajkot, which was at 7:40 PM to Mumbai. (Jamnagar too has a direct flight to Mumbai, unfortunately for me, it was in the middle of the day, and not conducive to my plan). I explained that I intended to cover as much as possible during the day and also told him of the species I was on the lookout for photography. Patiently, he explained to me all the spots to travel to, and since he was travelling on those days himself, also referred me to Kunal Joshi, an expert who had been leading birding expeditions for years in the Jamnagar area, also spending some time of the year in the Himalayas, leading expeditions there as well. I relayed my discussion with Mustakbhai to Kunal as well. On my arrival in Jamnagar, I met both Manisha and Mukesh for dinner, and after telling them of my plans for the next day, both of them decided to accompany me and Kunal as well for the morning part of the trip.
After the morning ablutions and quickly ensuring all my gear was in place, the hotel staff supplied with me with a much-needed hot cup of tea, and I met Kunal downstairs. We reaffirmed the plan, and Bababhai, our driver, an experienced hand who was quite enthusiastic when I had told him of our day’s travel plans, brought around the car as we made way to our first destination, the Balachadi Beach
Balachadi Beach- Plover Paradise
In my discussions with Kunal, I had requested to check possible locations for one species in particular, the Crab Plover, a beautiful large wader uncommonly seen in India, but known to congregate on the coastal outskirts of Jamnagar. Mustakbhai had already recommended to visit the Narara island in the Marine National Park for these. Unfortunately, the tide timings on the day were not conducive to visit Narara which was a fair distance away from the city in the morning, which is why Kunal suggested to amend the plan for our early morning visit, to Balachadi beach, a short 30 minute drive from the city. How this decision played out, you’d see soon. As we drove past the city and into the countryside, we saw a herd of nilgai moving about in the wee hours of the morning. A flock of Great White Pelicans flew overhead, towards some mangroves as we headed closer to the beach, and my anticipation levels grew wondering what was in store for us. Kunal had indicated earlier he was hoping there wouldn’t be a crowd since it was early morning on a weekday, so hopefully we could see peak bird activity. We weren’t disappointed as we reached the spot with the vast expanse of beach in front of us. I could see a congregation of black-and-white birds in the distance, and many others as well, that too with not a human being in sight!
We stepped out, and while Manisha and Mukesh hung back, watching the birds through binoculars, Kunal and I started making slow progress, closer to the birds. Once we were within range, Kunal stayed back to give me pointers on the bird’s movement as I crept slowly ahead. The closest crab plover flock was on a small sandbank surrounded by ankle-deep water and as slowly as possible, I moved closer. Once I reached the sandbank, which had a small incline, I lay flat hoping for the birds to move closer with the increasing tide. Kunal signaled from the back, the birds were moving towards me, and I saw a couple peek their heads over the small incline examining the strange object lying flat on the bank. Time passed, but no luck. Slowly, I doubled back to increase the distance between the birds and me, and carefully rose so I could look over the incline. They didn’t look troubled, and I managed a few shots, when together, they all took to the air, an amazing spectacle standing just feet away from them.
The small flock I was close to, joined another larger flock some distance away, and for a few moments the entire group circled the sea beyond before returning back to their roost on the beach. Quite satisfied, I returned, and Kunal also suggested to check some rocky parts of the beach where we might find other interesting waders. A 15-minute walk later, and we were extremely well rewarded finding some coveted winter migrants such as Eurasian Oystercatchers, Grey Plovers, Terek Sandpipers among many others.
The backdrop of the deep blue of the Gulf made all these graceful birds look even more striking. While photographing these, lady luck smiled on us as well as even a few Crab Plovers flew in to rest nearby. As the sun rose, thoroughly sated with the morning’s discoveries, we made our way back to the city to visit another hotspot.
Lakhota Lake- Urban oasis
There is no missing this landmark once you enter Jamnagar city. Located in the heart of the town, this lake with a small palace (now housed as museum) in its centre is certainly one of the iconic images of Jamnagar. The surprise, however comes from its avian diversity. Over 75 species (and the number may be higher) can be sighted at this lake, and it is particularly a haven for waterfowl, a variety of migratory ducks coming in from Western Europe and Northern Asia, to winter here, in the warm waters of the lake.
On our quest, were two of these migratory species, the Mallard and the Tufted Duck, both species migrating from countries such as Iceland & Russia to here in India during the cold winter. Manisha and Mukesh returned to their duties for the day, and also asked us to stop by for a quick lunch at their place, after our search at Lakhota. As we reached one of the gates, we noticed that some construction work was underway at the lake. I found that the lake itself has been in the eye of a controversy lately, as the Jamnagar Municipal Corporation had went ahead with work on the beautification of the lake. This was contested by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Lakhota Nature Club, that the ‘beautification’ would damage the unique heritage and natural environment. Subsequently after much back and forth, the Gujarat High Court did finally lift the stay and the beautification work has resumed and it remains to be seen whether this is going to harm the original environment in the long-term.
We could see some of the congregated waterfowl in the lake, but were quite far, hence Kunal guided us to a point from where we could make our way closer to the lake banks. As the sun blazed overhead and we made our way closer to the lake, we scanned for our target species. We could see Great Cormorants, Common Pochards, Northern Shovellers, all winter migrants and even resident species such as the Comb Duck. Black and Brown-headed gulls, Eurasian Coots and Indian Spot-billed Ducks were particularly numerous in the lake environs. Pelicans are also regularly sighted at the lake, unfortunately we did not come across them.
Finally, Kunal spotted a small group of tufted ducks swimming in the distance. We made our way closer to them, but had to sit and wait for them to arrive closer to the lake banks. Meanwhile, a White Wagtail, another winter migrant provided some photographic opportunities as did some of the other lake residents. Soon enough, a group of tufted ducks too came within range, the unusual tuft of feathers in the manner of a crest prominent on some of the individuals.
We searched for the Mallard as well, the male of which has an iridescent green head with a bright yellow bill which makes for a brilliant sight, but neither the male nor the female were forthcoming that day, and our search revealed no signs.
As the sun reached its zenith, I realized we had to keep some time for our third destination as well, so after exiting the lake, we walked to the Hotel President for checkout and for then made our way for lunch at Manisha and Mukesh’s home. A very tasty Sindhi lunch later, replete with papad, we made our way to Narara Island, situated within the Marine National Park.
Narara- Corals, Birds and so much more
I had blinked off for a few minutes, after that tasty lunch as Bababhai ensured a smooth ride to our next destination situated 60 km away from Jamnagar city, the Narara island situated in the Marine National Park. The park has been the first of its kind in India, a protected marine reserve, and possibly one of the very few places in the country where you can come across marine life, with nothing but your feet in contact with water. The park is composed of a network of 42 coral islands, however the most famous of these known to visitors are Pirotan and Narara. Pirotan, accessible from Rozi port, had not been accessible to the public in recent times, and though there is now word of it now being opened again for selected visits, during my short whirlwind trip, we kept our foray restricted to Narara.
The preferred time for most travellers to visit the park should be during low tide, as this is when you are most likely to come across marine life such as hard and soft corals, a variety of crustaceans and molluscs including crabs, lobsters and octopus, as well as other marine life such as starfish, sea anemones, mud skippers and puffer fish. Stingrays are also occasionally seen, and further offshore, dolphins and the rarely seen dugong, an enigmatic marine mammal also sometimes known as the sea cow, based on its grazing behavior of seagrass. However, since one of the objectives of my visit was to document the avian diversity, our visit was timed more with the high tide receding so that the birds would not be very far off.
After entering the park gate and completing the due formalities, we began our exploration of Narara. Slowly but steadily, the sandy terrain with mangroves gave way to the rocky hard coral. Shoes are an absolute no-no here, and the recommended footwear is sandals.
On arrival, we came across various bird species indulged in feeding. It was amazing to witness how each of the waders have adapted to suit a specific niche of feeding habitat, sand plovers with their short beaks feeding on tiny marine life situated on the surface, while Eurasian Curlews with their long curved bills, often looking for similar prey, but probing much deeper into the sand.
We could see the stars for this trip, the Crab Plovers also feeding in the distance. However, the nature of the terrain made closer approach here difficult. After a few tries, we decided to keep a greater distance from the birds here compared to Balachadi in order to not disturb them. This did work, as I was privileged to witness an amazing interaction between an adult and juvenile Crab Plover, as the adult caught a crustacean in the shallow waters, and walked towards the juvenile, placing its caught prize in the juvenile’s bill, feeding it.
I came across other waders here as well, increasing my list of species seen to include the Curlew Sandpiper and Sanderling. Both these species are known to feed in coastal environments, and it was good to see them thriving in this protected area.
With my flight at 7:40 PM at Rajkot, we decided to make a move. On the way out, Kunal pointed to a spot close to the entrance of the park, where earlier the same year, an extremely rare winter migrant, the Grey Hypocolius, the only known species in its family, had been seen. Usually this species was known to be visible during winter in some restricted spots of the Kutch and nowhere else in the country, but it was good to hear this rarity had been spotted at Narara as well.
As we made our way back, I noticed another group of beauties feeding in the saltpans close to the entrance of the park, Greater Flamingoes. I took a few shots as keepsake, and Kunal got down to have a look as well. He smiled and asked me to look to their right. A small dark bird was swimming alone in the waters. A peek through the binoculars confirmed it to be a Black-necked Grebe, another species I had never seen before and a rarity as well. This individual was far, but a short drive ahead, we spotted another individual which was closer. I quickly made my way to get a closer shot, when another surprise! A huge Dalmatian pelican was resting close to the water’s edge. Delighted, I clicked away, adding it to the image kitty of the amazing diversity of species I had come across here in Jamnagar.
The short duration of my visit meant that I could only experience a little of the beauty Jamnagar has to offer. Areas like Khijadiya sanctuary, and amazing phenomenon such as the spectacular flying formations of rosy starlings (known as murmurations) around Lakhota Lake were just a few of the things I missed out on, which I hope to cover soon on my next trip there.
Equipment: Nikon D5300, Nikkor AF-S 80-400G ED VR
(The above is a slightly modified version of the article published in the March 2016 issue of the magazine, ‘Travel Touriosity’)